The dulcet tones of “White Christmas” which crackled on the airwaves of the Armed Forces radio on April 29, 1975, did not succeed in spreading joy in sunny Saigon. Instead, the release of the vacation standard after the announcement that “the temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising” instilled fear and panic in all those who recognized the coded signal to begin an immediate evacuation of all the Americans in Vietnam.
Although the United States withdrew its combat forces from Vietnam after the signing of the Paris peace accords in 1973, about 5,000 Americans – including diplomats, naval guards, contractors, and employees of Central Intelligence Agency – stayed. President Richard Nixon had secretly promised South Vietnam that the United States would “answer with all its might” if North Vietnam violated the peace treaty. However, after the Watergate scandal forced Nixon to resign, the North Vietnamese army felt encouraged to launch a major offensive in March 1975.
“From Hanoi’s perspective, the unrest that led to and including Nixon’s resignation was an opportunity to take advantage of the distraction of the United States,” said Tom Clavin, co-author of Last Men Out: The True Story of America’s Last Heroic Hours in Vietnam. “North Vietnam never intended to respect the 1973 agreement – its ultimate mission was to unify the country – but the political crisis in America has allowed them to go up their calendar.”
North Vietnamese cities capture en route to Saigon
After winning a decisive battle at Ban Me Thuot and capturing the central highlands, the North Vietnamese army swept the south and captured the cities of Quang Tri and Hue with little resistance and no American response. The fall of Da Nang, the second largest city in South Vietnam, on March 29, sparked a furious exodus that included desperate residents hanging from the back staircase and the landing gear of a World Airways plane and falling to death as it took off. After having watched Media coverage of the incident, President Gerald Ford told an assistant, “It’s time to unplug the plug.” Vietnam is gone. ”
With little American appetite to re-engage in the Vietnam War, Congress rejected Ford’s request for $ 722 million to help South Vietnam. When Communist forces seized Xuan Loc on April 21, South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu resigned and fled the country while 150,000 enemy soldiers were on the trail of Saigon.
The American ambassador resists
Inside the South Vietnamese capital, U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin has dismissed repeated calls to even consider an evacuation, let alone execute it. Martin, who had been sick for months, feared panic in the city and determined to fulfill the mandate given to him by Nixon when he was appointed two years earlier to preserve the existence of South Vietnam.
“Like the country where he was ambassador, Martin barely functioned in April 1975,” said Clavin. “Martin’s physical and emotional exhaustion affected his decision making. Even the most robust ambassador would have been affected by the enormous pressure to represent a failing American policy and walls crumbling all around him. “
Early in the morning of April 29, North Vietnamese troops bombed Tan Son Nhut air base in Saigon, killing two American Marines guarding the office of the defense attaché. Corporal Charles McMahon and Lance Corporal Darwin Judge were the last of approximately 58,000 American soldiers killed in action during the Vietnam War. After examining the damage to the air base, Martin admitted that the time had come to leave Saigon, but with blocked waterways and commercial and military aircraft unable to land, the ambassador’s delays forced the United United to choose a helicopter as a last resort.
Beginning of American airlift for helicopters
Once the “White Christmas” signal was given to start the exodus, the code name of Operation Frequent Wind, Americans and their Vietnamese allies gathered at pre-arranged locations to board buses and helicopters to the office of the defense attaché where larger helicopters transported them to US Navy ships 40 miles further into the South China Sea.
About 5,000 people escaped from the office of the defense attaché until enemy fire forced the US Embassy to become the only point of departure. While plans included extracting only the Americans, Martin insisted that the Vietnamese government, military officials and support personnel also be evacuated.
“Beyond his mistakes, Martin was a good man,” said Clavin. “Martin really cared about the indigenous people and, like many others, he expected a bloodbath once the North Vietnamese entered the city. With everything else failing, at least it could save lives before it is too late. “
As around 10,000 people were shouting outside the doors of the embassy, naval guards were faced with the unenviable task of deciding who would be saved and who would remain. During the day and at night, helicopters landed at 10-minute intervals on the embassy roof and in an adjacent parking lot.
Meanwhile, pilots from the South Vietnamese Air Force requisitioned helicopters, loaded their families on board, and landed on the decks of American ships. So many South Vietnamese helicopters besieged the fleet that crews were forced to push helicopters into the sea to make room for others to land.
The last helicopter leaves the U.S. Embassy in Saigon
Martin has repeatedly refused to leave his post to ensure that as many people as possible are flown. Despite his wish, however, the Americans simply could not take everyone gathered to the embassy. At 3:30 a.m. Ford ordered Martin to leave the embassy and stipulated that only the Americans would be evacuated on the remaining flights. Ninety minutes later, Martin left after receiving the folded flag from the embassy.
The last marines to leave the embassy left just after dawn on April 30, leaving hundreds of Vietnamese. As the helicopter carrying the marines disappeared from view, the American presence in Vietnam disappeared. ((An iconic photo of Vietnamese evacuees climbing a rocky wooden staircase to a helicopter on the roof of a building the night before is often remembered as the last helicopter to leave the U.S. Embassy.) With some pilots flying for 19 hours straight, the US military had carried out an incredible evacuation of 7,000 people, including 5,500 Vietnamese, in less than 24 hours.
A few hours after the departure of the embassy’s last helicopter, North Vietnamese tanks crossed the gates of the Palace of Independence. General Duong Van Minh, who succeeded Thieu as president, offered an unconditional surrender, officially ending the two-decade Vietnam War. The new regime renamed Saigon as Ho Chi Minh City to honor the the late North Vietnamese president.